A controversy that has been brewing for several years in the world of influenza research may ignite again with the publication last week of a new paper that’s worth a read. I haven’t to date written about the controversy, which centers on what’s called “gain of function” research. In the case of flu, what is being gained (via lab manipulation) is the ability for flu to transmit easily from one lab animal to another. The strains being manipulated are already virulent, that is, causing severe illness; and novel — that is, humans have never experienced them before, and so have no immunity to them. Adding transmissible to virulent and novel brings flu into the territory of becoming a potential pandemic strain. That’s where the controversy is, and what this new paper addresses.
Cast your mind back to about this time a year ago. A novel strain of flu, influenza A (H7N9), had emerged in China, in the provinces around Shanghai. International health authorities were deeply concerned, because any new strain of flu bears careful watching — and also because, on the 10th anniversary of the SARS epidemic, no one knew how candid China would be about its cases.
By the time peak season for flu ended in China, there had been 132 cases and 37 deaths from that newest flu strain. But, confounding expectations, the Chinese government was notably open about the new disease’s occurrence, and scientists worldwide were able to ramp up to study it. Still, no one could say whether that flu would be the one to make the always-feared leap to a pandemic strain that might sweep the globe. As with other, earlier, worrisome strains of flu, science could only wait and see whether it might return.
And now it has.
Warner Brothers has released the first trailer for CONTAGION, a Steven Soderbergh bio-thriller about an influenza strain gone virally rogue that will open Sept. 9. Quoting from the movie’s website:
“Contagion” follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.
Delicious exchange from the trailer (zinger response from Laurence Fishburne):
“Is there anyway someone could weaponize the bird flu?”
“Someone doesn’t have to weaponize bird flu. The birds are doing that.”
Here’s the trailer. You are made of stern stuff if it doesn’t make you want to wash your hands. (I’ll be over here in the corner, rubbing mine together in scary-disease glee.)